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Israel and Hezbollah: Preparing for War?

Jonathan Doc Habany

Following a long period of relative calm, the level of tension on Israel’s northern border is now at its highest since the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Although the past six years in the region have been among the quietest since the 1970s, the IDF considers the current situation a worrying silence. According to Israeli military officials, this reality should not allow Israel to become complacent, and the army remains ready for every possible scenario including a new confrontation with Hezbollah. As Israeli Brigadier-General Hertzi Halevy said on July 5: “The IDF is preparing seriously and professionally for another Lebanon war, the response will need to be sharper, harder, and in some ways very violent”.

Halevy’s interview with the Israeli media was one of four given by a senior officer from the Northern Command in two weeks. The unusually high frequency of interviews given by such highly ranked officials suggests that the IDF is responding to developments over the border. These words are not only addressed to Israeli ears, but are particularly aimed at Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, warning him against provoking Israel. The officers’ warnings come on the heels of threats sent recently to Israel by the organization in South Lebanon and Nasrallah himself. In May 2012, Nasrallah proclaimed that Hezbollah has the ability to strike anywhere in Israel, and in February 2012 he promised to murder Israeli officials to avenge Imad Mughniyah’s assassination. Furthermore, a number of incidents committed by Hezbollah — including a series of attempted terror attacks against Israeli targets around the world, most recently in Cyprus, and continued reconnaissance activities on the Israeli-Lebanese border — have raised tensions in northern Israel.

Hezbollah supporters gather to listen to Hassan Nasrallah’s televised speech in Beirut. (Photo: UPI)

 When it comes to the possibility of a future conflict, however, current regional crises will likely influence Hezbollah. In June 2012, the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center published a report emphasizing the generous support Hezbollah receives from the Iranian regime in cooperation with Syria. Currently, however, this ‘holy’ triangle — with Iran at the head as the financial power, Syria as the logistical liaison, and Hezbollah as the operative player — is weakening due to sanctions imposed by the West on Iran and Syria’s escalating internal violence.

According to Yoram Schweitzer and Oz Gertner of the Israel-based Institute for National Security Studies, when the need arises Hezbollah may get a direct order from Tehran to engage in provocative actions against Israel, which could potentially escalate into war. In addition, a collapse of the Syrian regime might lead to transfers of game-changing weapons to Hezbollah from Syria — a situation that would likely oblige the IDF to act. Since 2006, Hezbollah has focused on rebuilding its military capabilities and members lost during that summer’s war. These developments, discussed in a July 2010 intelligence report published by the IDF spokesman, include an estimated unprecedented arsenal of 60,000 rockets and medium range missiles — 10 times more the weaponry than the terror group possessed during the Second Lebanon War.

Hezbollah plays a dual role in Lebanon, as both a guerrilla organization and a strong national political player involved in government. As a terror organization, Hezbollah has used the past six years to focus on regaining its position as a regional military opponent to Israel, and currently maintains an independent military power which is comparable to a national army. All the while, Nasrallah’s organization is active in Lebanese national politics, aspiring to raise its popularity among the people. However, this strategy could backfire as Hezbollah transforms away from its non-state actor status, with the attendant risk that another clash with Israel will provide Jerusalem with the legitimacy to consider Hezbollah as an integral part of the Lebanese system. Six years after the war, the Lebanese people still recall the destruction Hezbollah brought upon the country as the remaining physical scars testify to that fateful summer. Nevertheless, the extent to which Nasrallah is willing to drag Lebanon into another round of war remains an open question.